Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood was a peculiar writer who believed very strongly in psychic forces and was obsessed with the relationship between human civilisation and the natural world. "The Willows" is one of his best-known works, as well as one of his first. First published in 1907, it was acclaimed by H.P. Lovecraft as his favourite "weird tale".

It is the first story in the collection Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, and yet it is not what most people think of as a ghost story. It is precisely because of this that I have chosen to discuss it here. There are no unquiet dead spirits in "The Willows"; instead it involves a confrontation between two ordinary people and an otherworldly force that they do not comprehend. The "ghosts" are unexplained, being portrayed as something that is so alien to our ordinary reality that we could not possibly comprehend it. This was clearly an influence on Lovecraft, whose own fiction often revolved around similar themes.

"The Willows" is about two men (both unnamed - the narrator and his travelling companion who is only referred to as "the Swede") who are on the most recent of many travels together, this time canoeing down the Danube while it floods. When night falls they take shelter on a river bank which they have been told has never been visited by people before because of superstitious dread.

Throughout the story, Blackwood characterises the natural elements as being sinister, threatening and even personified. The river, the wind, and especially the willows on the banks seem hostile to them as intruders. But it is when the narrator awakes in the middle of the night and leaves the tent that things really start to happen, and he sees something he can't quite believe:
I stared, trying to force every atom of vision from my eyes. For a long time I thought they must every moment disappear and resolve themselves into the movements of the branches and prove to be an optical illusion. I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed.
(You'll have to read the story to find out what he actually sees. That's how I roll.)

Blackwood does a far better job than Lovecraft of showing a rational person's mind bend from seeing something that should not be possible. Lovecraft's narrators tended to just say that they could not describe what they saw lest they go mad; Blackwood's attempts to describe it, plainly fails, tries to deny it, mocks his companion for believing the evidence of his own senses and insisting that something incomprehensible is in fact happening, and generally loses control in quite a believable fashion. His companion (described as "the accurate Swede" in the story's clumsiest piece of writing) has a far stronger grip on things, but he also cannot keep his composure in the long run.

This is not a story that will satisfy anyone who wants everything neatly explained and tied up at the end, but I thought it was a terrific ghost story, and despite some dated stylistic elements, in terms of content it could quite easily be taken as a contemporary story. Given that it was published a mere ten years after Bram Stoker's Dracula, a horror story that could only have been written in an earlier era, this is quite an accomplishment.

I need to dig out the collection of ghost stories by the real master of the genre, M.R. James, that's somewhere in my boxes of books. But tomorrow it's back to the movies and off to Italy for one of the most perverse ghost movies of the 1960s.

Willows on the Danube


  1. Hmm - I'd like to read this guy. I once saw a burning tree take the form of a crashed spacecaft, the burning pilot, and the trench it made while crashing, from a time before humans inhabitated the earth, near Otaki Beach.